Hungary's government says it will end a coronavirus-related state of emergency on June 20, revoking a much-criticized law that handed sweeping powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban in March.
"We expect those who have attacked us with untrue political accusations to apologize for leading a slander campaign," Hungary's Justice Minister Judit Varga wrote Tuesday in a Facebook post.
Now that Hungary has avoided "an outbreak, mass illness and thousands of deaths," Varga said the government has submitted a draft bill to revoke the emergency powers law, which gave Orban the power to rule by decree and sidestep parliament. The law also revised the criminal code to allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who spread what the government deems false information about its pandemic strategy.
Hungary has recorded 3,793 coronavirus infections and 505 deaths.
Because the law was approved with no sunset clause, critics saw it as a power grab by Orban, who has spent the last decade eroding checks and balances to create what he calls an "illiberal democracy."
During emergency rule, Orban's government also pushed through several measures unrelated to the pandemic, including banning changes to gender on legal identity documents and classifying information about a Chinese-funded railway project.
Rights advocates and others warn that the new legislation revoking the state of emergency won't necessarily rein in Orban's sizable powers. Viktoria Serdult, a journalist at the independent Hungarian news site HVG, tweeted that some measures will stand even after the state of emergency ends. "The biggest question is whether 'fearmongering and spread of misinformation' will still be punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment," she added. "Let's wait and see."
Earlier this month, lawmakers in the European Parliament demanded that Orban's government be punished for using the pandemic to grab power.
The government says its critics have spread lies about the emergency law's intent and failed to show solidarity with Orban during a pandemic.
"Some drew allusions to Hitler," wrote government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs in a Euronews opinion piece. "Critics claimed that this law hailed the end of democracy in our country. In fact, more Hungarians are alive today because of it."
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog and frequent critic of Orban's government, says the legislation to revoke the state of emergency and Orban's decree powers "is nothing but an optical illusion."
If adopted in its present form, the group warns, "That will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards."